On Air
Open In Popup
MPR News

In new book, Alex Wagner climbs the tangled branches of her family tree

Share story

Alex Wagner is a TV and print journalist and author of 'Futureface.'
Alex Wagner is a TV and print journalist and author of the new book "Futureface."
Sam Kass

As the daughter of a Burmese mother and a white American father, Alex Wagner grew up feeling special when others would wonder: "What is she?"  

"And I would delight when people would ask me if I was Hawaiian, or Egyptian or Alaskan," she said Tuesday.  

Futureface by Alex Wagner
Alex Wagner is a TV and print journalist and author of the new book, "Futureface."
Penguin Random House

But in the end, Wagner felt that being everything was the same as being nothing. So she set out to explore her family's roots in a new book called "Futureface: A family mystery, an epic quest, and the secret to belonging."   

Wagner is a CBS News contributor and one of the new hosts of Showtime's "The Circus." She'll discuss her book Tuesday night in Minneapolis. 

  As a child of mixed race, she didn't feel tethered to any particular identity growing up.  

"That was OK for a while," she said. "I thought of myself as generically American. I liked Garfield and 'Saved by the Bell' and Chips Ahoy and 'Murder, She Wrote.'"

  But one day, when she was about 12 years old, she found herself alone in a diner while her dad was in the restroom.   

"The line cook at the diner turned and looked and me and said, 'Are you adopted?'" she recalled. "It was the first time I realized that the way I thought of myself was not the way everybody else thought of me. It was the first time I really questioned, 'OK, but where do I belong?' I naturally thought of myself as the daughter of a white American. I never questioned that. But other people thought I must be from some other place, that I couldn't possibly belong to him and his American story."  

Wagner said a sense of loneliness settled in. Not only as a mixed-race child, but as the only child born to her parents. In her world, there was no one who looked quite like her.  

Until high school — when she came across a picture on a magazine cover. That's where she got the idea for the name of her book, "Futureface."

  "In 1993, Time magazine ran this cover story that said, 'This is the future face of America.' And it was this racial composite image. And the woman, the racial composite, sort of looked like me," she said. "And I thought for the first time in my life, 'This is where I belong. I belong in the nebulous brown future. I am the hapa toucan, this exotic bird, flying in from some year hence to show the people of America what they'll all look like one day.'"  

But into her 30s, it was important for Wagner to root herself in the stories of her ancestors. First she went to her mother's homeland of Burma, now officially known as Myanmar. Until then, like a lot of immigrant children, she grew up hearing rose-colored versions of what her family left behind.  

"For me, the stories from Burma were these incredibly romantic, halcyon images of having bananas at tea time," she recalled. "My grandmother at one point said, 'I was raised at an early age to love Cadbury's chocolate.'"  

Wagner discovered that her own family sat atop a caste system in a country with a long history of ethnic persecution and racial animus. And she saw parallels to the anti-immigrant fervor that she had been observing in her own country.  

"The cresting nationalism and xenophobia — that was just what America was going through in its economic angst, its racial angst. But what I realized when I did more family research is that the very same and actually much more poisonous and deliberately violent strain of nationalism exists and existed in Burma. In many ways, my people — my own family — were part of the nationalist fervor that has given rise to the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority today," she said.  

On her father's side of the family tree, she found another complicated narrative.   

"There'd be this homily about the Wagners of Lansing, Iowa," she said. "It's basically a simplistic tale told a lot by white Americans, which is, 'We came here, we worked hard, and we made it.' And there were not a lot of questions about perhaps what we were given, or what we took away." 

  She learned how the Winnebago people were exiled from those lands, clearing the way for her great-grandfather from Luxembourg to settle there. 

  While writing the book, Wagner lost two of her central characters. Both her Burmese grandmother and her American father died before it came out. But three weeks after her father's death, she gave birth to her first child. Wagner said the book is a gift to her son.

  She'll share more of this more truthful retelling of her family's history at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Minneapolis Central Library.